LegalED helps free classroom time for experiential learning

Regular readers of Best Practices for Legal Education Blog know about Michele Pistone’s LegalED. LegalED shares short videos of leading law professors discussing various topics. (Subject matter areas include administrative law, constitutional law, copyright, evidence, immigration law, legal ethics, trial advocacy, and more). Videos can be viewed by students outside of class, freeing up class time for hands-on, problem-based learning and assessment.

If you have not already joined LegalED, you can join now by filling out this short form.

An interview with Michele Pistone on flipping the law school classroom is currently featured in Scholastica Blog.

So you want to be a law professor

So you want to be a law professor. If you do a quick Internet search (as I did today), you will likely find the following advice:

  • The most important factors in determining your success in the market for a law professor position are: (1) the law school you attended (top 5 is ideal; top 20 is workable; a school ranked below that will make your search difficult); (2) law review membership, (3) federal clerkship or clerkships; (3) having one or more published law review articles after graduation; (4) a couple of years of practice experience; and (5) excellent recommendations from law faculty.
  • Adjunct teaching experience is not helpful to your candidacy.
  • Generally, practice experience is not helpful to your candidacy.
  • If you want to be a clinician, practice experience is likely important and a record of publication is likely less important. In one article, a professor explained that in his time on appointments committees he found that most candidates who had extensive practice experience were more interested in teaching than scholarship. He suggested, “Such people often are better directed toward clinical work than regular tenure-track positions.”

In the new era of legal education, this seems like a faulty framework for law school hiring decisions. Maybe this is a non-issue. After all, with declining applications and enrollments, many law schools are not hiring.

But for schools that are hiring, isn’t it irresponsible to continue hiring based on the old criteria? Today’s law students expect to be prepared for practice. The old model – a single exam at the end of a semester of case law and the Socratic method – does not cut it. It never adequately prepared people for practice. But in the old days (when I went to the law school), we got our experiential learning after graduation.

Today, that hands-on learning needs to start in the law school classroom. Preparing students for practice means providing context. It means putting students in the role of lawyer so that they can begin to understand how lawyers use the law to help solve clients’ problems in practice. It means providing students feedback during the semester.

This can, and should, be part of legal education for all three years of law school. It need not be reserved for clinics and externships. This education is something that all law professors should be able to provide our students.

Who should law schools hire to train the next generation of lawyers? Does it make any sense that people (1) interested in teaching; (2) with practice experience; and/or (3) who did not attend a top law school should be viewed as less qualified for law professor positions? Why is a clinical teaching position not a “regular tenure-track position” at most law schools? Aren’t people with a passion for teaching and/or with significant practice experience just as capable as the “traditional” applicants to produce meaningful scholarship?

Some law schools have followed a different hiring model for many years and others are changing. I am sure there are others that believe there is a work-around. They will continue with business as usual, but lean heavily on clinicians in non-tenure track positions to provide the experiential learning students and employers demand. But maybe it’s time to start thinking about the advantages of a different approach.

The “Dark Side” of Being a Lawyer

Bibliography on Education Reform, courtesy of Patricia Salkin

Fall is here and in addition to the start of the academic semester, the NYSBA Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar is in high gear.  So much has been written about changes in legal education in a short period of time, it can be difficult to keep track of the books, articles, columns, posts, etc. Thanks to Touro Law librarian Laura Ross, a working bibliography on legal education reform has now been posted to SSRN for all to access. This is an ongoing work-in-progress, and Laura welcomes emails with suggestions for additions to the list.  Entries in the bibliography provide great starting points for discussion among faculty and law school constituents about the present but more important, the future, for individual law schools.  We hope you will use this to inform your teaching, scholarship and service to the school and community moving forward.  Those of us fortunate to be a part of the Academy have a wonderful opportunity at this moment in time to respond to a rapidly changing legal profession by making deliberate and informed reforms in the way we educate the next generation of lawyers.

Consider Pre-testing

The recently passed ABA accreditation standard 302 requires schools to report student learning outcomes. A learning outcome has been defined as something a student can do now that she could not do before [or that she can do better than she did before].

One classic way to measure learning is to give pre-tests. When the class begins, students are tested on  key aspects of learning the professor hopes the students will achieve  during the semester. Pre-test results can be compared to end-of-course results to see if, in fact, students’ learning improved. They also can be used by professors to help identify students’ strengths and weaknesses at the outset and to adjust our teaching accordingly. UNM Dean David Herring’s work on measuring cross-case reasoning is an excellent example of how professors can use pre/post tests to measure learning and improve teaching.

While pre-tests may provide learning outcome information, the more intriguing aspect of pre-tests is that they may, themselves, be a learning tool. A recent NY Times article reports studies indicating that pre-tests actually improve final exam performance.

The studies’ authors have multiple theories about why pre-tests improve learning. First, they hypothesize that pre-tests help students identify how they will have to think about and synthesize the material. Students begin the course with that information in hand and it shapes their studying.

Another theory is that we suffer from “fluency illusion” – we believe that we truly grasp the material because we have read and highlighted. A pre-test exposes weaknesses in both knowledge and application.

Additionally, there are biological explanations for why pre-tests improve student learning. The brain works via developing networks of associations. Pre-testing primes the brain to develop associations for the material in the pre-test so that when it is later covered in class, the brain can more easily link the new information to existing information.

In the studies presented in the NY Times article, the pre-tests were particularly helpful with multiple choice test performance, and a key to improved performance was providing students with the correct information shortly after they had taken the pre-tests

The value of pretests may depend upon the type of course and the skills and knowledge tested. Yet the idea has intriguing possibilities. Would a pre-test before we covered hearsay improve student learning of that difficult topic? Would a course pre-test on reading/interpreting statutes result in better student performance of this skill at the end of the semester? Would providing 1Ls with a mock exam and an annotated model answer shortly after they began law school improve overall first year exam performance?

Data from other disciplines suggests pre-testing primes students to learn the material and it provides teachers with data we can use to see if the learning occurred. The value of pre-tests in legal education is an idea that certainly merits further study.

Albany Law Dean Penny Andrews sent this our way for posting:

Unlearning as Learning Outcome

As the newly revised ABA accreditation standards 301 and 302 now require law schools to clearly articulate and publish their learning outcomes for their students, so individual faculty members must do likewise. Yet it is not uncommon to see these learning outcomes statements that read like the table of contents of the textbook used to teach the course. To truly be effective in driving learning and teaching, learning outcomes must be targeted, concrete, measurable and active (not “learning about” but “learning how to”).

How do we most effectively choose and articulate these learning outcomes? In MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION 83-89 (2010)., educational specialist David Perkins emphasizes that learning is most effective if learners “work on the hard parts.” Similarly, the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN framework, originally developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, emphasizes beginning the search for course goals by looking for the “Big Idea” in the course. These are the ideas or themes that can be used throughout a legal career and that require a lot of work to master.

One of the most effective ways to uncover these “big ideas’ or ‘hard parts” is to focus first on unlearning outcomes – that is, preventing and addressing predictable misunderstandings in the course. Thus, for example, much of the first year of law school is devoted to “unlearning” the positivist philosophy of students who believe the law is resolutely determinate. These fundamental misunderstandings are persistent, difficult to overcome and block learning of new ideas. Students construct knowledge by building on prior understandings. If those prior understandings are incomplete or incorrect, new learning will be flawed as well. As summarized by NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, COMMITTEE ON DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING, HOW PEOPLE LEARN: BRAIN, MIND, EXPERIENCE, AND SCHOOL: EXPANDED EDITION 11 (2000), “teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject.”

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) ( 2014), Elizabeth Green reviews the research concluding that effective teachers (as measured by student learning gains) are those who are able to identify the reasons that students misunderstand and help them to unlearn those misunderstandings.

Some of the most fundamental misconceptions that students bring to a subject from their own experience (or from bad course outlines passed around from prior semesters) must be discovered in the classroom. Brief classroom assessment devices such as “minute papers” or statements for the students to complete can easily generate a range of incorrect or incomplete understandings for any given topic.  The mission to discover student errors leads faculty to many of the best practices in teaching: regular interaction with students, frequent and meaningful feedback, and active learning strategies.

The power of an “unlearning” perspective on assessment improves student learning, but also quickly leads faculty to a deeper understanding of what assessment of student learning oucomes means.  Assessment is not an end-point, a box to be checked, reported and forgotten, but is an iterative process of discovery and experiment that drives students and faculty learning alike. Assessment tools (such as quizzes, socratic dialogue, essays, simulations, and reflections) might be used to unearth student misconceptions.  These misconceptions then become the basis for the learning outcomes around which one can build a course and assessments then can be used to determine the extent to which one is successfully dislodging misunderstanding and misconception and replace it with a solid framework mastery.


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